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Singapore artists at the 2017 Venice Biennale draw inspiration from the past

Singapore artists mine South-east Asia's past to create works for the world's biggest art show.

Venice, an Old World fortress sinking slowly into the sea, turns out to be the perfect site for Zai Kuning’s massive ship. Showcased in an old shipyard complex known as the Arsenale, Zai’s 17 metre-long ghost ship looks ready to cut loose and sail quietly into Venice’s back canals to pick up passengers from a vanished past.

Zai, 52, is representing Singapore at the Venice Biennale, the world’s biggest art show with hundreds of top artists from at least 85 countries. And he’s taking this opportunity to introduce 500,000 international visitors thronging the event to a lesser-known period of Singapore’s history.

From the 8th to the 12th century, South-east Asia was dominated by the Srivijaya kingdom, a Buddhist hegemon. Little evidence exists to provide a window into this past. But Zai has spent almost 20 years criss-crossing the region to document the remnants of the kingdom.

He centres the exhibition on Dapunta Hyang, the first Malay-Buddhist ruler of the kingdom – a man Zai says came to him in a dream during one of his expeditions in the Riau Islands.

For Venice, Zai has painstakingly created the skeleton of a Phinisi ship, modelled from the vessels he believed Dapunta Hyang sailed in. It has been created onsite using one tonne of rattan, 10 km of red string and 30 kg of beeswax – and not a single nail.

Zai explains: “The space has worked well for the ship. The rough walls, the beams in the ceiling and its location right next to the water make it right for the artwork. The fact that the show is debuting on Vesak Day makes it additionally auspicious.”

Last Wednesday, the show was officially opened by Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth. She said in her speech: “We recognise that the Venice Biennale is an important platform for our visual artists and their technical specialists to present their works to the global audience. The inroads that our artists have made internationally reflect the growth of Singapore’s contemporary art scene.”

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Ms Fu described the exhibition as “a masterpiece nearly two decades in the making”. She was accompanied by Yeoh Chee Yan, permanent secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, and Prof Chan Heng Chee, chairman of the National Arts Council (NAC) which commissioned the exhibition.

On a long wall running parallel to the ship are 27 black-and-white portraits of mak yong performers. An audio recording of a mak yong master speaking in an ancient Malay dialect plays on a loop. Mak yong is an ancient form of dance-drama with roots in Srivijayan times. Though regarded as one of the last authentic cultural clues to the Malay Archipelago’s animistic and Hindu-Buddhist past, it is an endangered art form because Malaysian authorities consider it un-Islamic.

Zai says: “We will never again be able to access our past if we don’t put more effort into finding and preserving evidence of it. The work isn’t just important to Singapore – but to the whole South-east Asian region.”

Zai is one of Singapore’s pioneering experimental artists. He was the first president of The Artist Village, the country’s first artist colony whose members include founder Tang Da Wu, Vincent Leow, Amanda Heng, Tang Mun Kit, Koh Nguang How, Low Eng Teong and other important figures. At its height, there were 35 artists living in a rural Sembawang chicken farm-turned-art studio who gained acclaim for their fresh and radical approaches to making art.

Zai is the first artist from The Artists Village to present a solo show in Venice; other members such as Tang and Leow have previously been part of group shows representing Singapore.

Zai collaborated with art historian TK Sabapathy and Thai photographer Wichai Juntavaro for the project. He notes: “It is gratifying to know that people are finally taking my work seriously. In the past, I had to struggle to prove the importance of my research. But now more people understand its significance, and with the exposure it is getting in Venice, the rest of the world will understand it too.”

Other artists shine

Meanwhile, other Singaporean artists are also showing their works in Venice under the auspices of various organisations. By chance, two are also mining history and tradition to reflect on modern-day issues.

Erika Tan, who teaches fine art at Central Saint Martins in London, is showing a multi-part video and sculptural installation at the Palazzo Pisani in Santa Marina. The Gothic palace houses the Diaspora Pavilion, an exhibition showcasing 19 UK-based artists seeking to expand the meaning of diaspora. Among them are respected names such as Isaac Julien, Ellen Gallagher and Yinka Shonibare.

Tan’s work titled The Forgotten Weaver looks at the history of an expert weaver, Halimah Binti Abdullah, who had travelled from Johore to London in 1924 to showcase her skills at the British Empire Exhibition, which was designed to glorify British colonial prowess.

However, the 60-year-old Halimah contracted pneumonia possibly due to her first winter experience and died not long after stepping foot in London. All that remains of her are footnotes in history books.

Tan says: “Perhaps, one of the reasons I’m interested in her personally is that she helped me make a connection between London and Singapore through the condition of the diaspora. It is a condition where ‘return’ is not always simple, direct, or even possible – as in her case.

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“As an artist working in the UK, I feel there are also experiences where one doesn’t just make artworks, but also somehow becomes a representative – Halimah, for instance, did not just demonstrate her craft of weaving, but she also ‘performed’ the Malay subject. And Venice is certainly a place where issues around representation are rife – albeit mostly around national representation.”

The other artist is Sarah Choo Jing, 27, an art teacher at Nanyang Girls High School. Her work titled The Art Of Rehearsal is part of a group exhibition titled Personal Structures hosted by the European Cultural Centre and organised by the GAA Foundation, a Dutch non-profit organisation.

Choo’s immersive three-channel video work depicts various traditional dancers practising their steps and routines in the back lanes of cultural districts of Singapore.

She points out: “We always see dancers executing their moves perfectly on stage. But we rarely see the grit and hard work that goes on behind the scenes. So I’ve placed these dancers in these frequently overlooked back alleys, to show how art often toils in grimy, unglamorous surroundings.”

Beside Zai, Tan and Choo, other Singapore artists and curators involved in this year’s Venice Biennale include Annie Jael Kwan who is bringing the performance works of Boedi Widjaja and Lynn Lu to the Diaspora Pavilion next month, as well as Yeo Chee Kiong who is showing his outdoor sculptures at the Giardini Marinaressa.

The Venice Biennale runs from now till Nov 26 in Venice, Italy

Adapted from The Business Times

Photo credit: The Business Times